Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The dangers of 'most e-mailed' lists

Over at NYTimes.com, the list of stories that have been e-mailed the most is the "big kahuna, a significant driver of interest," Martin Nisenholtz, senior VP of digital operations, has said. (One site, ljworld.com, goes so far as to show readers the list of most e-mailed obituaries.) I love these sorts of features because, most times, I can find a really good read there without having to exert much effort actually looking. And, not coincidentally, the lists of "most e-mailed" and "most blogged" stories are usually the ones people are talking about later that day.

Such tools let editor- (or producer- ) driven sites to also allow readers some say in matters of news judgment, without turning the site over to them, as at such reader-ranked sites as Digg.com.

(And, in the news vs. hits category, I give you one of the most prominent stories at the moment on Charlotte.com: "Man (in California) charged with ransoming mother's cat.")

I've always found it interesting just how high Charlotte.com plays national/international stories. Are people really coming to the site for this sort of information? Yes, the "Paris Hilton-esque" stories are usually among the most-read, but is that because people are clicking on them from Google or Yahoo? Is it because the "Today's Talk" section is among the most prominent on the page? (If you put the four top high school sports, or Panthers stories, or local biz stories in that spot, with a photo, would they get similarly high numbers of hits? Would that be better serving our readers than putting Paris and Lindsey up there?) Does making those sorts of stories -- stories that can be found on almost any news site -- so prominent make it harder to find our exclusive content?


I'm sure there's some sort of clever transition I should make here, but really, this whole post was just so I could share this story from the Onion about the terrible effects such "most read" lists can have:

"Your reputation is everything here at the Times, and if you want get known, you've got to deliver what readers want: differences between men and women, and photos of cats," national political reporter Adam Nagourney said. "I suppose I could be most e-mailed, too, if I sat in front of my computer all day making up cutesy names for government officials, like some redheaded Wednesday and Saturday columnists I know." ...

Executive editor Bill Keller said he believes that the Most E-Mailed list is causing "troubling" changes in the Times' editorial focus, as reporters increasingly neglect less attractive assignments.

"I've always encouraged our journalists to follow their instincts," Keller said. "But now I'm considering a more hands-on approach, especially since I've received no fewer than four 800-word pieces on 'man dates' in the past week alone."

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